Archive for the ‘North Korea’ Category

It was pretty much exactly five years ago when I booked a group tour to North Korea – a rather spontaneous decision after talking to a new colleague from Norway for a while, who had been to the DPRK several times. As a history buff from Germany living in Japan I guess I was destined to visit the country sooner or later… and I was so fascinated that I came back after just half a year. In spring of 2013 I spent 8 days, 7 nights in Pyongyang and the southern part of North Korea, in autumn an additional 8 days, 7 nights in the rarely visited northern part of North Korea along the Chinese and Russian borders.

*After each trip I posted a series of articles here on Abandoned Kansai* – and the resulting special is still quite popular, depending on how much attention North Korea gets in the news. Next week the 2018 Winter Olympics will begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and much to the surprise of the rest of the world North Korea will actually participate – which is kinda great news for *Abandoned Kansai*, *AIDA Gallery* and our long planned photo exhibition “North Korea – Surprising Insights”!

The exhibition features 48 photos taken between April 27th and October 21st 2013 – from Pyongyang’s skyscrapers to little huts in the countryside, from impressive monuments to unwanted glimpses, from high-ranking military personnel at the Korean Wall to unsupervised contact with regular people in a park.
We’ll have an opening party on Saturday (February 3rd) at AIDA Gallery in Osaka from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. – then the exhibition will be open to the public on February 4th, 10th, 11th, 17th, and 18th from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; free of charge, of course… (Please *click here* for a link to GoogleMaps.) Please stop by for a look and a chat if you are in the area!

(*Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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Exactly three years ago I left *North Korea* for a second time – a good opportunity to share some information you probably didn’t know about Abandoned Kansai…

I don’t think I ever mentioned it on the blog, but on *Facebook* I earned quite a few interesting reactions when I revealed that Abandoned Kansai had some visitors from North Korea in 2013 – not many, for a total of 12 views, but still! In 2014 that number when up to 14… and in 2015 Abandoned Kansai was popular as never before in the DPRK: 24 views! This total of 50 views is not a lot, but still more than from 74 other countries and territories all over the world, including Bermuda, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Samoa. (In case you wonder: About 50% of my traffic is from the United States – only one view each since 2012-02-25 from the British Indian Ocean Territory, Comoros, Gambia, Kiribati, Lesotho, Netherland Antilles, Sao Tome & Principe, Sint Maarten, Solomon Islands, South Sudan and Turkmenistan.)
(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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My trips to the Democratic People’s Republic Korea a.k.a. North Korea have been some of the most memorable vacations I’ve ever been on – and the *North Korea Special* here on *Abandoned Kansai* is still one of the most popular articles I’ve ever written.
During my summer vacation in 2015 I did a solo exhibition about urbex photography in the city hall of my hometown of Bürstadt, Germany; quite a popular one, with enthusiastic reviews by several local media outlets. So when I decided on my 2016 summer vacation, planning another photo exhibition was kind of a natural thing to do – especially since I was able to get the precious time slot that includes the international gymnastics festival “Gymastica”, which attracts hundreds of amateur athletes from all over the world. The perfect opportunity to show some of the pictures I took in North Korea, famous for its own and “slightly bigger” gymnastics festival, the Arirang Mass Games.
The exhibition takes place at the city hall in Bürstadt, Germany – Rathausstraße 2; that’s about 45 minutes south of Frankfurt. It’s accessible free of charge on Mondays / Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Tuesdays / Wednesdays / Fridays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. till August 5th 2015. If you are lucky you can catch me there, but even if you don’t, you’ll find handouts with some explanatory lines about each of the 26 photo in both German and English. Oh, and please leave a comment in the guest book if you can make it! 🙂

(*Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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My last day in North Korea started with another unpleasant experience. Since I was early at the bus in front of the Pipha Hotel, I used the waiting time to walk 30 meters down the driveway and take a picture of the carved in stone hotel sign. I kept in sight of both the hotel and the bus, yet Robocop was slightly upset when I came back three minutes later. What I was taking pictures of, he asked me. So I told him and offered to show him the pictures. “No, it’s okay.” Thank you so much, Sir, how generous!

When everybody was ready, we drove down to that snack shop looking building at the beach and walked across a bridge to Pipha Island – or Pipa / P´ip´a / Pípá / Bipa Island, depending on the sign. Fun fact: The Chinese characters the Koreans used on signs were 琵琶, as in Lake Biwa (琵琶湖), Japan’s largest freshwater lake, just across the mountains from Kyoto and home to many abandoned places, like the *Biwako Tower & Igosu 108* – all the places and hotels are named after the same item, a lute. After about 20 minutes of easy hiking we reached the Pipha Island Hotel (which reminded me a little bit of a pink painted *Nakagusku Hotel*) and some landing piers for boats. The most interesting thing there was a large container painted in silver – and when you walked around it, you could see that the back wasn’t painted over and still showed the logo of its original owner, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, part of the Mitsui Group and one of Japan’s largest companies…
But we weren’t going to Pipha Island to discover more about the crazy relationship between North and East Korea, we were there to have a look at the island itself (our guides talked about it for two and a half days!) and to go on a boat ride. Just north off the coast was North Korea’s only nature reservation site… for seals! Of course they charged us an additional 100 RMB per person, but how many people can claim they went on a boat ride in North Korea? Although the question should probably be “How many people want to claim that?” as the landing stage was an equally rusty and brittle construction of metal tubes and planks. The boat itself didn’t look too trustworthy either, but hey… no risk, no fun! So we headed out to seals, followed by a swarm of seagulls, Robocop being happy like a child. (Well, happy like a happy child, not like the child he yelled at the day before!)
Speaking of seals: Out dear guideguards kept referring to the Russian tourists visiting Rason as “seals” – mainly because, according to them, they are fat and lie at the beach all day; which is kind of funny and hilariously unprofessional at the same time. I guess you don’t need to know much about the world to be a racist…

After spending almost three days in Rajin we finally drove to Sonbong, the second name-giving part of Rason. There, at the Sonbong Revolutionary Site, I should make my scariest run-in with the local authorities.

Sonbong (a.k.a. Unggi) is famous for being the harbor Kim Jong-il landed at upon his return from Russian exile at age 4. Now there is a nicely gardened revolutionary site at the city center, including the former house of a Japanese businessman. While Mr. Kim was talking I had a look around and went to the backside of the house, taking a couple of photos out of sight of the rest of the group. When I returned to the group I saw a local senior citizen talking to Robocop and I knew I was in trouble. After finishing the conversation Robocop came straight at me, demanding to see my photos. Not “Can I please have a look at the last photos you took?” – no, “Show me your photos!”. I didn’t have a guilty conscience, so I happily showed him the last dozen photos I took, but it was nevertheless a friggin scary moment! Getting denunciated by a North Korean woman in North Korea… Wow, that was so weird. But it also shows how deeply rooted their obedience is, and this culture of ratting out other people. Rason is a Special Economic Zone for about 20 years, there are foreigners (Russians) around for much longer. Western tourist groups are becoming more of a regular sight in Rason, some foreigners running joint ventures are living there – yet that old lady felt the urge to run to the authorities right away (even when she saw the big group of tourists accompanied by three Korean officials in suits!) and report that one foreigner, who was taking photos when nobody was around. It’s actually quite sad and one of the countless hardly visible difficulties Korea will face if the country ever gets reunited. But of course I didn’t take any problematic photos (in Sonbong), so Robocop got off my case with a simple “It’s okay.” after he went through my photos – no explanation, no apology.

At that point I was actually happy to finally leave the country. Between the delusional guides in North Hamgyong and the paranoid-lying bunch in Rason I was so tired of all those crazy characters you had to experience yourself to believe that they were real. (My fellow travelers were lovely though. I usually don’t like bigger groups, or smaller groups, but hanging out with this gang 24/7 never felt like a burden.)

After lunch at a restaurant with a small Christmas tree we left Sonbong for the countryside. With that it was clear that Mr. Kim lied to me for the past two days and we were not going to another local store. Most people spent their remaining local currency on water and other drinks at the restaurant, but I had too much left, which I wasn’t happy about. It was completely out of the question to give it to the guides as an additional tip, so I was contemplating what to do with it. Leave it somewhere? Flush it down a toilet? Burn it?
Luckily I didn’t do the latter! After I got back from the trip I read all kinds of articles about Yanji, Rason and North Hamgyong. One was about a journalist in Yanji interviewing refugees. In 2009 North Korea undertook a currency reform, replacing old won with new won. There was an exchange limit of 500.000 won, but even poorer people were worried that having too much cash might raise questions, so they got rid of it. One interviewee reported that one guy burned a couple of bills and got caught. Shortly after he was executed – because he burnt the image of Kim Il-sung… So aside from not being practicable, it’s generally not a good idea to burn local money in North Korea!
I ended up handing the remaining won to Mr. Kim, along with a huge stack of RMB and 15 postcards – as I mentioned before, postage was 2.5 EUR per card, and he promised to take care of them as we never made it to a post-office or shop. “It is my honor and my duty!” were his words when I thanked him. The cards were supposed to arrive after six to eight weeks, two weeks longer than from Pyongyang in spring. Guess what! Four months later not a single one of them has arrived; not mine, not those of my fellow travelers! (I wrote them an e-mail last week to find out about it…) I don’t know if Mr. Kim took our money and never posted the cards, if the person he gave them to just threw them away, or if the postal operators in Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, the States and New Zealand all failed – but I am absolutely not happy about it!

Last tourist destination of the trip was the Three Border Viewpoint in the far northeast corner of North Korea, where the DPRK borders China and Russia. Landmarks were a watchtower in China and the railroad bridge across the river Tumen between North Korea and Russia. On the Korean side it was the Sungjondae, a memorial in honor of Yi Sun-sin, who invented the turtle ship and repeatedly defeated the Japanese invaders in sea battles at the end of the 16th century.

After a 90 minute drive to the Chinese border at Wonjong / Wonchong (passing smaller towns like *Tumangang*, which I secretly filmed), we went through what was supposed to be the most nerve-wrecking luggage check. On the way in we had nothing to lose, but on the way out each and every one of us had tons of photos, videos, books, magazines and other things. To my surprise this border check was complete mayhem. They collected all the foreign books and electronics again, but it was so chaotic that they missed people and weren’t very thorough with the rest of us – dozens of Russians and Chinese just added to the turmoil. The suitcases were x-rayed, but without much attention. In the end the check was a lot less thorough than eight days prior. Then we boarded a really crowded bus with a lot of cross-border commuters and off we went. The 600 meter ride took about 15 minutes as first there was some struggle over the bus fee and then somebody took photos on the bus, much to the dislike of some officials. Entering China was a piece of cake and after eight days on horrible roads it was so nice to drive for two hours straight without bouncing in your seat like a bobblehead.

Upon arrival at the Ryugyong / Liujing Hotel in Yanji we watched one final North Korean performance (without being dragged into it!) while having dinner together, before one after another said goodbye to the group. Most of them were flying to Beijing early next morning, but I had to stay another night in Yanji since there were no flights by Korean Air to Seoul on Tuesdays – a blessing in disguise as I was able to explore the *amazing half-abandoned amusement park in Yanji’s city center*.

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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Rason being surrounded by mountains and me being an avid hiker, I asked Mr. Kim (not comrade Kim, we were not in North Hamgyong anymore!) on Saturday if hiking was a popular hobby in the DPRK – he said no, and his answer wasn’t a surprise. When you have to walk everywhere because hardly anybody has a car and only a few more have bikes, the one thing you don’t want to do in your rare spare time is walking… up a mountain. At least in that regard 99.9999% of humans are the same, because when you look at the history of mountaineering, it’s basically just 200 years old; and it weren’t the poorest of the poor who started it.
Interestingly enough sightseeing on Day 7 started in front of a gigantic hiking map. Mount Sahyan is overlooking Rajin and promised to offer stunning views. Surprisingly North Koreans and Japanese are quite similar when it comes to mountain climbing, and so our dear hosts built a road to the top of the damn thing – much like Mount Ibuki, one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. Luckily Mr. Kim remembered my question from the day before, so he stopped the bus and we walked the last few hundred meters, the mountain still partly cloaked in clouds. I loved it!
The view from the observation platform was stunning and thanks to the additional height I was finally able to make use of my 200mm zoom. Not that there was something secret to take pictures of… at least not looking down the mountain. Maybe up there? It seems like somebody was living right under the platform (clothes drying in the sun, a photo I had to take secretly), and two of my fellow travelers spotted an electric fence in the middle of some scrubs – and close to the mountain top was some shell construction going on. Of course nobody mentioned anything, so we left without bringing up tricky questions.

Rason’s pride and joy clearly is its harbor – not the more or less abandoned one in Sonbong, but the one in Rajin, especially the Russian pier. At the time of our visit the place was one big chaotic construction site, but that didn’t keep our hosts from showing us all the modernizations – mostly done by Russians with Japanese equipment. A dredger was deepening the harbor basin and a dozen new cranes were prepared for their tasks. After finally reconstructing the train line between Rason and Russia, the harbor’s tracks were modernized, too – and unlike in spring nobody kept us from taking photos of those trains, which were about 1/20 as old as the ones I saw between Pyongyang and the Chinese border.
One pier east of the Russian one we made another stop to take some photos. The most interesting motif there was a really old ship towards pier #1. Upon closer look you could see four different names, some of them overlapping. A Japanese one, a Chinese one, a Korean one, then a layer of white paint and the current Chinese one written in black letters. Not really a surprise to see such a vessel in North Korea (I think I’ve seen more barely swimming ships than decent ones in the DPRK), nevertheless a nice find.

Right before lunch we stopped by at the Foreign Language Bookshop in Rajin, which was nothing like the one in Pyongyang or the stamp shop in Kaesong. No propaganda postcards, just relatively dull photo postcards of Mount Chilbo. No English books, or hardly any. A couple of out of date maps and quite a decent collection of DVDs (music and movies) as well as Korean comics – since those turned out to have at least some insight value (western characters were clearly unflattering caricatures) I got half a dozen of those and a set of postcards to send home. The reunification postcard I sent to myself from Pyongyang is still one of my favorite souvenirs ever, which left 14 for family and friends. Of course capitalism is strong in Rason and so it wasn’t really a surprise that postage was 2.5 EUR per postcard! I don’t remember 100%, but I am pretty sure that I paid one EUR per card half a year prior in Pyongyang… let alone that the nominal value of the stamps were 155 North Korean won, less than 2 cent! (31 times the price of *a subway ride in Pyongyang*, but at the same time more than 125 times of what they actually charge tourists.)

After lunch we visited the Hae’an Park in Rajin’s city center (not to be confused with the significantly more famous Heian Park in Kyoto!). But of course it wouldn’t have been North Korea if things wouldn’t have been twisted there, too. First of all: Hae’an Park wasn’t free, although it looked like any generic public park anywhere else in the world; except for the big screen showing a North Korean movie. Locals as well as foreigners had to pay a fee at the gate, of course at a special rate for foreigners. Since it was included in the tour fee it shouldn’t matter to me, but stuff like that annoys me quite a bit under certain circumstances. Special rates for foreigners – postage, entrance fee, everything. Sure, I’m from a rather rich country and I don’t consider myself a stinted person… I basically don’t mind paying a markup in poorer countries, although I don’t get a discount when I travel in richer ones. It actually only really pisses me off when lying or cheating is involved. Like at that one park in Beijing, where the entrance fee was 2 RMB; I gave 10 and received 7 back. I honestly don’t care if the entrance fee is 2 RMB, 3 RMB, 5 RMB or 10 RMB, especially when on vacation. But don’t cheat me out of 50%! But who would argue over 1 friggin yuan when you don’t know Chinese? I didn’t, but I will forever remember Beijing as a city of liars and cheaters! (It wasn’t the only “incident”. The Beijing leg of my *spring trip to North Korea* was one big nightmare… Whereas people in Yanji were rather lovely.)
Anyway, Hae’an Park charging an entrance fee. How ironic. Of all the countries in the world, I expected parks in North Korea to be free of charge…
Guess whom we met just minutes later! Tomas The Brewer. The brewpub he was responsible for was (and still is) located in Hae’an Park, so we did a little detour and had a closer look. Brand-new building close to the beach, two containers with equipment just a stone’s throw away. Everything imported from the Czech Republic, down to the hop and malt, in a joint venture between the Rason government and Zvu Potez. Tomas was there for about half a year to supervise the construction / installation and to teach a couple of locals how to brew beer. (Another similarity between North Korea and Japan! When the latter opened to the west in the 19th century, it hired experts from all over the world to import knowledge – among them were German brewers at what is now known as Kirin.)
Back at the main area of the Hae’an Park I ran into more acquaintances: two of the three girls I talked to at the Foreign Language School the day before were roller skating! They obviously had no idea that we would be at the park, you could clearly see it on their faces when they saw us – and they always kept their distance. Makes me wonder how good their English really was. When we stayed on-topic it was pretty good, way better than mine at age 13 actually, but they succeeded at not risking the good impression they made 24 hours earlier.

Mind-blowing highlight of the day was visiting the market in Rajin, the only market in North Korea open to foreigners. Most of the time our Korean guardguides were calm and collected, but all of a sudden they became tense – no camera, no cell phone, no bag, no nothing! Wallet and jacket, that’s it, everything else we had to leave back at the bus. People always tell me that my photos of North Korea look so empty. It’s because usually we were not allowed to take photos in more crowded areas. And that market was crowded! We were basically pushed and shoved through the halls and along the paths between the outdoor stalls. Split into sections, the market offered basically everything you can imagine – from clothing to office supplies, from electronics to food. While people all over country (except for the political elite) were eating kimchi or corn for half of the year, the food section at the market in Rason was stocked like a Japanese supermarket, including some fruits I had never seen before in my life. The whole experience was like a rollercoaster ride, everything rushed by in no time. Sadly the following story, too, so I report it to the best of my memory:
You have probably heard about North Korean street children. Every once in a while short sequences of shaky low quality video pop up, taken by undercover aid agencies. There are orphanages in North Korea, but I am not familiar enough with the social structure of the country or how interested the state really is in picking up additional eaters it has to take care of. Maybe it’s easier to have them living in the streets – or maybe everything just South Korean propaganda (I doubt that though!). Anyway, I was so distracted by all the chaos of the market, that I didn’t pay attention whether there were children or not. Our “big” group (of 12 at this point… plus guides) split into two or three smaller groups, reunited, split, reunited. Some of us westerners spent remaining local currency on small purchases, like cigarettes, sweets, fruits and vegetables – even with rather little money we got rather big amounts of chestnuts, roasted peanuts, banana chips and other things. We were already on the way out when I saw how someone from our group gave a huge handful of chestnuts to a young boy, maybe six or seven years old, not exactly well-dressed; the first kid I consciously saw there at the market. Then everything happened even faster. One of our guardguides must have observed that act of kindness, bawled at the group member and at the same time slapped the chestnuts out of the kid’s hand. He then started yelling at the boy, who ran away. Everything happened so fast that I am still not 100% sure if everything really happened that way, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. You have to deal with a lot of bullshit when visiting North Korea, I think I have been pretty clear about it here, and most of it I accepted as part of the experience. But there is absolutely no reason, under no circumstances, for a highly privileged party member (who could buy whatever he wanted at the market, just from the tips he was about to receive the next day from a dozen western tourists!) to slap food out of the hand of a skinny boy with a dirty face. Behavior like that disgusts me beyond believe – and what made it even worse was when the same guardguide fed pieces of steamed buns to seagulls the next day with childish joy on his face!
(Since I still had local money when leaving the market I asked Mr. Kim twice that day, if we could visit the same or another mixed goods store again, so I could spend those won – he said yes, but didn’t follow through.)

After visiting the market our whole group was kind of deflated. We drove to the Rajin Hotel, years ago the prime tourist accommodation in the area, for a cup of coffee. What once might have been the pride of Rajin was just a shadow of its former glory. I’ve actually been to abandoned hotels in Japan that were in better condition. Most windows were cracked and some walls were moldy, even in the area we sat in. More than an hour we wasted this way before we continued to…

… another accommodation we didn’t stay at. This time the (in)famous Emperor Hotel & Casino, Rason’s only 5 star hotel, built and run by the Hong Kong based Emperor Group. Opened in 2000 after an investment of 64 million USD, the hotel targets rich Chinese businessmen and tourists who are able to afford one of the more than 100 rooms at a rate between 780 and 1680 RMB (between 128 and 276 USD). According to our guides most guests actually don’t leave the hotel much and instead spend their time gambling at the casino – which kind of explains the condition of the beach behind the hotel and the path leading there.
I was bored in the hotel lobby within seconds, so I asked Mr. Kim if we were allowed to have a look outside. He said yes and I bolted instantly without even having a look at the casino. (Especially since we had to buy chips to get in – of course we could return them without playing, but why the hassle? There are casinos everywhere in the world.) Outside I took a few photos up the mountain where our hotel was and then I went to the seaside to have a look at the back of the Emperor Hotel. Within a couple of minutes Robocop showed up. “What are you doing out here alone”, he asked me, sounding like a Russian mobster who was going to whack me. “You shouldn’t do that!” So I dug as deep as I could and told him how much I enjoy nature in the DPRK and that I couldn’t stand to spend more time inside of that building. Robocop bought it and we actually had a nice conversation – the only nice conversation, as our stiff third guardguide usually wasn’t much of a talker… unless he yelled at poor children. I’m actually pretty sure that the girls at the Foreign Language School spoke better English than him. Anyway, while we were outside pretending to have a natural conversation, Robocop talked on his cell phone two or three times – and even within knowing any Korean it wasn’t really a surprise when five minutes later the rest of the group showed up. Felt like being back in Japan, you are nothing without your group…
As a group we finally made it to the beach, which clearly hadn’t seen any cleaning or other kind of maintenance in quite a long time, despite it being a really nice beach with crystal clear water. Since most people were making small talk, one of our more investigative members went on a walk along the beach towards a small building, probably a snack shop. After a while Robocop’s spider senses must have tingled, because he was bolting after the fleeing “sheep” – who sped up when realizing what was happening. It was actually quite funny to watch and gave a couple of other people the opportunity to have a closer look around. Not that there was much to see, but it was always nice when Robocop was distracted. Five minutes later guard and guarded came back, “having a nice conversation”. A busy day for minder #3…

The day’s entertainment program ended at the Pipha Folk Hotel. Before dinner we had a little workshop about how to make kimchi, after dinner (sometimes with electricity, sometimes without) I took the opportunity to write the postcards I bought earlier that day. When we were about to leave, the waitresses “insisted” on performing for us in a separate karaoke room with the nastiest laser show I’ve ever seen – the kind where you are in constant fear of going blind, which isn’t exactly unlikely given the close relationship between North Korea and China. Of course the performance turned into a join-in party and I was just glad when we finally made it back to the Pipha Hotel

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The first full day in Rason was packed with tons of program. After breakfast in a separate building (once an exclusive retreat for party members, on some maps marked as “DPRK Leadership Complex”) we headed down the bouncy mountain road to downtown Rajin and paid respect to the Kims. Despite being part of the Rason Special Economic Zone since 1991, Rajin still doesn’t have its own set of statues, so we had to make do with portraits right across from Rajin Stadium. (The statues are currently being built on top of a hill overlooking the city and will most likely be revealed later this year.)
On that hill already is a music hall and a museum, the latter we visited for a couple of minutes. Here I found out that our second set of guardguides were not as funny and relaxed as we all thought the night before. After listening to the local museum guide and Mr. Kim’s translation I was about to choke since I caught a cold after four days of low temperatures and no hot water in North Hamgyong. I live in Asia long enough to know that blowing your nose is considered impolite in some areas, but snuffling wasn’t an option – the space was already occupied. So I waited for the guides to finish their speeches, until we got time to explore the room by ourselves. And then I dared to blow my nose, as quietly as possible of course – and if look could kill, I would have dropped dead.
Mr. Pak, soon be known as Robocop amongst our group, shooshed me with an evil stare only somebody with ten years in the North Korean military can develop. Our “lovely” third “guide” got his nickname because of his amazing range of facial expressions, which was somewhere between Keanu Reeves and… well… Robocop. Since he was the least experienced minder, being with the team for just two months, Robocop had the task of keeping an eye on us to make sure that we follow ALL the rules; especially the ones nobody mentioned. Before his new career as a tourist guide, Robocop actually was a career soldier who spent the past decade with the Korean People’s Army – and given his general demeanor I don’t think he was a chef there, though I am convinced he was very good at deboning…
Anyway, I survived both the snot attack and Mr. Pak’s evil stare (his shooshing being louder than my nose blowing), but I would have a run in with Robocop at least once a day – and so did a lot of people.

Next we visited an art gallery in the city. Half a year prior I bought two hand-painted propaganda posters in Pyongyang and I was hoping to get more here; especially after 5 days of only being able to buy nothing but alcohol and a couple of books. Finally some real souvenirs! Or so I thought as the art gallery turned out to be the first of many disappointments in Rason (not counting Mr. Pak’s shooshing, which actually was kind of a disappointment, too). Despite the fact that they had a dozen propaganda posters on the wall, the gallery staff refused to sell them to us. We could buy anything else, but not the propaganda posters. What the heck? Sadly they didn’t make any effort to sell us anything at all, so we left after a couple of minutes, slightly confused. (And when we drove by the gallery a few minutes later it was closed already, at around 11 a.m.!)
Next on the itinerary was “something very special” – we were allowed to go to the Golden Triangle Bank, one of several financial institutes in Rason, to change EUR, USD, RUB, JPY or CNY into North Korean won at the current, actual exchange rate. (When we did “something very special” in Pyongyang, they allowed us to change money, too, but at a horrible rate, worth a fraction of the actual value. Advantage in Pyongyang though – we received brand-new bills and coins…) All four of our guides warned us not to change too much money as we were not allowed to take it back to China – if we were caught, terrible things could happen to our Korean guides! Spoiler alert: Two days later at the border crossing nobody checked our wallets or what we could have potentially have hidden in clothing or underwear. Since we were a good group, nobody or hardly anybody tried, but it was one more bullshit story we wouldn’t have bought anywhere else in the world. Dozens, probably hundreds of Chinese cross the border every day and on a regular basis at Wonchong – you can’t tell me that they too are forced to cross without any Korean money on them!

Well, anyway, the usual spiel of “something they want to do, something we want to do” continued, so next on our schedule was a visit to a greenhouse where they were growing North Korea’s two most famous flowers, Kimilsungia (an orchid) and Kimjongilia (a begonia) – guess why we went there! While the Kimilsungia was named after Kim Il-sung when he saw the then unnamed flower during a visit to Indonesia, the Kimjongilia was cultivated by Japanese (!) botanist Kamo Mototeru in the dictator’s honor. There wasn’t really much to see other than a couple of dozen potted flowers (plus the usual array of info signs in Korea), so the whole group was back out and ready to go in no time.

Which was good, because now we were in a hurry to make it to the American run shoe factory in Rajin as the workers there were about to have a break; which would have prohibited us from seeing how shoes are made. Maybe it was because of lunch time or because it was Saturday, but the assembly line we saw wasn’t exactly super busy. Half a dozen workers were gluing sports shoes together and all of a sudden they were gone – so we had lunch, too. Interestingly enough the workers didn’t look like they were about to have lunch when we left – we saw them getting together in the yard to work on the construction of another building. I guess nobody cared or dared to ask, but some things didn’t fit. Either it was one big misunderstanding from my side or those guys weren’t really working in that factory on Saturdays…

Lunch was interesting in that regard as the restaurant we ate at was next to a souvenir shop – the next shopping disappointment. The store, targeted at foreign tourists, was stuffed with all kinds of low-price crap and high-price art (fine-art paintings, wood carvings, …) for Chinese and Russian tourists. No books, no sweets, no posters. Just a couple of national flag pins I loved during the first trip. In Kaesong near the DMZ those pins were 50 cent a piece, in Rajin they wanted 3.50 EUR! Congratulations, guys – I guess Juche and capitalism aren’t mutually exclusive after all, especially when supply and demand are involved; and rich Russian tourists!
Luckily the tides turned just minutes later and the money we got our greedy little hands on came into play, when we were taken to a local store to buy some sweets and notebooks for the kindergarten kids we were about to visit. A local store, with local money, in North Korea! (Okay, in Rason, the Candyland version of North Korea, not the real North Korea – but real enough to realize that this was a very special moment and something only a handful of Westerners have ever done!) I was finally able to satisfy my souvenir urge by buying some really interesting looking pins I’ve never seen anywhere else before – and then I was just fascinated by the fact that I had access to local prices. Again, in the probably overpriced and definitely Candyland version of North Korea, nevertheless in a store that had everything from gigantic sacks of rice to Chinese razors (30,000 won and up), from Hello Kitty sweaters (62,000 won) to cigarettes (1,300 won to 47,000 won per pack!), from local sweets (1,000 won and up) to plastic guns. Given that 10,000 won were about 1 euro, everything there was dirt cheap from our point of view – at the same time you have to consider that the biggest bill in North Korea is a 5,000 won note and a ride on the *Pyongyang Metro* costs 5 won… and that most people only get some kind of pocket money as the state provides housing and most of the food. This realization hits you so much harder when you are there on location! (It also explains why I paid 2 EUR for Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of Cinema” in Chongjin while a fellow traveler paid 20 EUR for about 30 pages of legal text in Rason; Chonjin / Rason, supply / demand. North Koreans officially hate capitalism now, but Rason is proof that they are learning at the speed of light.)

From the shop we walked to the city center of Rajin to have a rest at some street stalls (selling beer, snacks and cigarettes). On the way there we met Czech brewer Tomas, who was temporarily living in Rason to supervise the construction of a microbrewery. By nature a kind person and admittedly bored, he invited us over to his place of work, but we had more urgent things to do at the street stalls; namely waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for 45 minutes.

Next on the schedule was the rather underwhelming Suchaebong Seafood Processing Factory, where we saw a couple of clams in water basins. Wow!

Luckily the kids at the kindergarten totally made up for it. As you know, I am still not a fan of these singing and dancing performances, but those kids were ADORABLE. Yes, all caps; THAT adorable! First they had to deal with a blackout halfway through their show and none of them even blinked. When the whole thing was over, of course we were encouraged to take photos with the kids, who were all giddy with excitement as most of their audiences have been Asian so far. Back then I was sporting a full beard and it was just hilarious to observe some of the kids talking to each other, pointing at their own faces with a circular motion and then pointing at my face. But it were fellow travelers Kent and David who put them in a previously unknown state of mirth when they started to take photos of the kids with their Polaroid camera – the room was buzzing with kid-sized humming birds, shaking countless pictures; absolutely unbelievable!
Sadly the kindergarten itself, while rather modern and without a spot, was one of those propaganda pieces of crap. I mentioned it in another article that *the chariot in front of the kindergarten was quite different from the one in Pyongyang*, but that’s not all. One of my fellow told me that she found what she described as “a war museum” when she was opening doors in the hallway while nobody was looking – and the militaristic sculpture next to the soccer field (labelled “strong and prosperous nation”) surely wasn’t put up there to build a bridge between the DPRK and the USA…

More adorable kids followed just minutes later, this time teenagers at the Foreign Language School. I fell victim to three 14 year old girls who bombarded me with questions in English, some of which I was able to ask back. Of course all questions were prepared and most of them were trivial, standard stuff like future jobs (2 out of 3 wanted to become soldiers!) and favorite hobbies (2 out of 3 liked to rollerblade in the park)… but when they asked me about “October 10th” I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, the founding day of the Workers’ Party of Korea, stupid! D’oh! Luckily they didn’t hold it against me and so we continued with less political topics – for example food. They were very eager to find out what pizza is and how they can make it at home; halfway through the description I realized that three female teachers in their 20s/30s were listening closely, too, more or less obvious. One of them was brave enough to ask afterwards what pasta is exactly and how to prepare it. When I mentioned that you can get it in every supermarket where I am from I felt a bit embarrassed, but I didn’t see any negativity in their eyes – her attitude was more like “I can’t wait for Rason to develop enough, so I can buy pasta, too!”. Probably the deepest insight got one fellow traveler who started talking about cars and who was asked by his students if he was military or a taxi driver – because even in the rather rich Rason Special Economic Zone hardly any Korean has a private car, so people being able to drive must be taxi drivers or members of the military, one of the few places in North Korea where you have the opportunity to learn how to drive. Those students obviously weren’t aware that in industrialized countries cars are as common as bikes are in North Korea.

The final stop of a really long day was at a textile factory where a few dozen women were sewing winter jackets – incredibly unspectacular. It kind of reminded me of the local company my grandma worked at when I was a child, and therefore nothing like the sweatshop images we all know and ignore from Southeast Asian countries. Of course we didn’t get any deeper insights (payment, treatment of the workers, …), but I didn’t get the point of visiting the factory anyway – we were a bunch of tourists, not investors. After we left though, one of my fellow travelers described how they saw that the labels sewn into the jackets said “Made in China”. Damn, I missed that little detail! I would have loved to seen it with my own eyes… and camera.

Anyway, Day 6 turned out to be a veeery long day – and this article turned out to be a veeery long one, too. I hope you enjoyed it… and I’ll see you in a few days!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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